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Handy hints: Ensuring calves get maximum benefit from colostrum

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All farmers recognise the importance of colostrum, but often ensuring calves receive what they need can be a challenge. Aly Balsom speaks to vet Tim Potter from Westpoint Farm Vets to get some hints on how to do it.
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Calves are born with limited immunity, so the first colostrum feed represents a vital source of immunoglobulins to help fight disease, as well as providing a calf with energy and essential nutrients.

 

Tim Potter from Westpoint Farm Vets says: “Look at the first 24 hours as the ‘golden period’ – if you miss the boat there, you could be lining the calf up for problems throughout its early life, as it will be more susceptible to disease and likely to be a poor-doer.”

 

 

Collect quickly and hygienically

Collect quickly and hygienically

The first colostrum is the highest quality, so its important calves feed straight away or colostrum is collected immediately after calving.

 

When leaving a calf on the dam, careful observation is vital to make sure the calf is suckling. However, Mr Potter says rather than relying on the calf to suckle, hand feeding colostrum is the best standard to ensure they receive enough.

 

To make sure this first feed of colostrum is of the highest quality possible, Mr Potter says: “Ideally, any situation where there could be cross-suckling should be avoided, as the calf will take the first lot of colostrum and instantly lower the quality of the product.

 

“If facilities allow, have a separate calving pen to avoid cross-suckling.”

 

When collecting colostrum from the cow for hand feeding, the same hygienic approach should be taken as if the cow was being milked. Use the same protocols as you would in the parlour and ensure equipment is clean. 

 

Think about timing and quantity of feeding

Speedy delivery of plenty of colostrum is important, as the ability of the gut to absorb immunoglobulins reduces to 24 hours.

 

Mr Potter says: “Aim to deliver three litres in the first six hours and another three litres within the first 24 hours.

 

“The first feed within six hours is really important as it takes advantage of when you have the most absorption.”

 

He suggests putting protocols in place so if a calf is born in the evening, it receives the essential first dose of colostrum.

 

Leaving it to the morning means the ‘sliding door’ for absorption is already closing.

Use a practical recording system to make sure it gets done

Having protocols in place, together with a tick box system or a way staff can quickly see colostrum feeding has been done, is an effective strategy to ensure calves are receiving what they need.

 

Mr Potter says: “I am a big fan of whiteboards in the calf shed as they are very visual. A card on the front of a pen or simply a spray mark on the back of calves can also be good.”

 

Think about timing and quantity of feeding

Speedy delivery of plenty of colostrum is important, as the ability of the gut to absorb immunoglobulins reduces to 24 hours.

 

Mr Potter says: “Aim to deliver three litres in the first six hours and another three litres within the first 24 hours.

 

“The first feed within six hours is really important as it takes advantage of when you have the most absorption.” 

 

He suggests putting protocols in place so if a calf is born in the evening, it receives the essential first dose of colostrum. Leaving it to the morning means the ‘sliding door’ for absorption is already closing.

 

Use a practical recording system to make sure it gets done

Having protocols in place, together with a tick box system or a way staff can quickly see colostrum feeding has been done, is an effective strategy to ensure calves are receiving what they need.

 

Mr Potter says: “I am a big fan of whiteboards in the calf shed as they are very visual. A card on the front of a pen or simply a spray mark on the back of calves can also be good.”

 

Make sure feeding equipment is clean

Make sure feeding equipment is clean

If you are using a stomach tube to deliver colostrum, make sure tubes are cleaned between calves and have separate ones for sick animals.

 

Mr Potter says: “If you use the same tube for delivering fluids to sick calves, there is a risk you could transmit disease to the newborn calf. Have separate ones or colour-coded ones so you have one for sick animals and one for colostrum.”

 

Store fresh colostrum hygienically

Colostrum can go off quickly, so avoid putting open containers in warm areas as it provides an ideal medium for bacteria to grow, which could then be absorbed by the calf.

 

“View colostrum as you would milk. Put it in a clean container and into a fridge,” says Mr Potter. “This fresh colostrum can then be stored for about one week.”

 

Check colostrum quality and freeze the best

Colostrum quality can be hugely variable between cows, so using a colostrometer is a handy way to measure the quality of what you are feeding.

 

A colostrometer is a hydrometer with red, amber and green markings up the side. By dropping it into a cylinder of colostrum, it can give an instant indication of quality based on thickness and how the meter floats.

 

Mr Potter says this is particularly useful when looking to identify the best supplies for freezing for future use. These supplies can then be defrosted and fed to calves born to dams with low colostrum quality or disease risk.

 

He says: “Freeze in dose size packs of say two-three litres, so when you defrost it, you have what you need. If it is frozen in a sensible container, it means you can defrost rapidly.”

 

“Always label, then if a cow goes down with Johne’s, you know which one to dispose of.”

 

How effective is your management?

Farms worried about colostrum management or with high levels of calf disease, should work with a vet to monitor calf immunoglobulin levels, Mr Potter says.


“A quick and cheap way, which is used as part of on-farm monitoring, is using a refractometer to monitor total [blood] proteins.”


This can be used on cohorts of calves to assess levels of blood immunoglobulin levels as an indicator of colostrum management success.

 

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